Monday, October 20, 2008

Giving My Parents A Stimulating Weekend In Boston

My parents, having spent last week in New York visiting my older brother and his family, took the train up to Boston early Friday morning in order to spend the weekend with Joshua and me.

My parents told us that they would stay at an hotel—and I fear that my parents may truly have preferred to stay at an hotel rather than stay with Josh and me in our small apartment—but Josh and I convinced them to stay with us. Our best arguments in favor of their staying with us were that hotels in Boston are notoriously expensive and not convenient to our apartment, that there would be too much back-and-forth between the hotel and our apartment (cutting into much of the available time), and that we were not planning to spend that much time in our apartment anyway.

My parents bought our arguments, and they decided to stay with us. I think they were comfortable.

We organized the weekend very carefully so that my parents might see and hear some things they would enjoy, but we planned only a single outing each day so that we were not wasting our time driving around, constantly going back and forth between downtown Boston and our apartment.

My parents arrived at midday on Friday, and Josh and I met their train at the train station. Josh had been on mid-term break last week, and he drove into town late Friday morning, and he and I met up at the train station.

We picked up my parents and we took them straight to Symphony Hall to hear Friday afternoon’s Boston Symphony concert. For Josh and me, it was our first visit to Symphony Hall and our first time hearing the Boston Symphony in Boston (although I have heard the Boston Symphony many times on tour, and all of us heard the Boston Symphony in 2007 in London). For my parents, it was their first visit to Symphony Hall in many years.

The concert was oddly arranged. The performance began with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.

There was a dismaying number of ensemble lapses in the Tchaikovsky. I wondered whether the musicians were tired, having played the same program the previous evening.

The performance was not successful. It lacked concentration, focus, energy and emotional commitment. The performance also lacked elegance, a necessity in the music of Tchaikovsky.

After intermission, the orchestra performed a new work by Leon Kirchner. The composition only required a quarter of an hour, and I wish it had been immediately repeated. No one can judge the quality of a new work after a single hearing, but I found the work to be appealing, and I would like to hear it again. Kirchner is an important composer, and his music is seldom played.

The final work on the program was Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Maurizio Pollini was the soloist. It was Pollini’s presence that drew us to the concert.

Pollini gave a fine performance of the work, and offered moments of individuality in the Andantino, but the Schumann Concerto does not call upon the full range of Pollini’s talents. I am surprised he maintains the work in his repertory. I would much rather have heard Pollini play Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms.

I had not heard Pollini in six or seven years, and I was shocked how old he looked. Pollini is only 66 years old, but he looked like a man in his eighties. I did not think he looked healthy.

James Levine did not look healthy, either. In fact, Levine looked awful—he looked like a stroke waiting to happen. Levine is so obese he verges on immobility. He conducts from an enormous and unsightly chair. I assume the Boston Symphony has succession plans in place.

The Boston Symphony is having attendance problems. A couple of weeks ago, the orchestra announced a special two-for-one ticket offer, with free drinks thrown into the deal to boot. It is one of many signs Josh and I have observed in Boston of a city and populace under financial stress. Boston is a very, very poor city.

If the Boston Symphony truly wants to encourage attendance, it might begin by engaging better conductors and creating better programs. When Josh and I looked through the BSO 2008-2009 season brochure, we were distinctly unimpressed. It is possible we may not attend another concert for the remainder of the season. The only reasons we even attended Friday’s concert was because my parents were in town and because I wanted Josh to hear Pollini.

Josh and I definitely will not attend another Boston Symphony concert between now and Christmas. The only concert we have on our schedule between now and the holidays is a Dresden Staatskapelle concert on November 19, Josh’s birthday.

After the Boston Symphony matinee, Josh and I took my parents home.

We had not stopped to eat lunch, so as soon as we got home I prepared oyster stew to tide us over until dinner. Oyster stew is quick and simple to prepare. I used my mother’s recipe, which includes small amounts of potatoes, carrots and leeks.

We stayed in Friday night, and we mostly talked. My parents wanted to make sure that Josh and I are faring well in Boston. They seemed satisfied that we are getting by satisfactorily.

I did some serious cooking while we talked, because Friday night was the only night we were to eat dinner at home all weekend.

I made some of my father’s favorite foods. I made applesauce from scratch, and I made stewed tomatoes from scratch. I made stuffing (for pork chops) from scratch. I made a very complicated (and sharp) version of macaroni-and-cheese from scratch. I made biscuits from scratch.

We ate all of the above with fresh green beans and white corn, and it was a nice dinner. It was well worth the trouble.

We stayed in the first half of Saturday. In fact, we did not even leave the apartment until early afternoon.

We all slept as late as we wanted. When we were all up, we sat around the kitchen table for two hours, drinking coffee, eating cereal and all kinds of fruit, and reading the newspapers. When we had had enough of this, we ate a very late breakfast: omelets, breakfast potatoes, toast and a cinnamon streusel coffee cake. Only at this point did we even make the effort to get the day under way.

This was deliberate. First, I wanted my parents to sleep in on Saturday morning and get plenty of rest. Second, we only wanted to make one trip downtown on Saturday.

Since we had tickets for Boston Ballet’s Saturday evening performance of “Cinderella”, we arranged the rest of the day around the ballet performance. We planned to hit The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts in the middle of the afternoon, have dinner afterward somewhere downtown, and proceed to the ballet. This would enable us to fit everything we wanted to do into a single excursion of a few hours, with a single trip downtown.

It worked out beautifully. We all had plenty of rest before we set out, we saw precisely what we wanted to see in a leisurely fashion, and we did not attempt to cram too much activity into a needlessly long day.

The major temporary exhibition at The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts was “Art And Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum”, an exhibition that has been touring the globe for the last decade, earning unimaginable fees for The British Museum. We spent an hour and 45 minutes going through the exhibition.

We all had seen the great Nimrod Palace and Nineveh Palace reliefs at The British Museum in August, but there were additional Assyrian reliefs on view in this touring exhibition, although not quite of the same importance as the Assyrian reliefs on permanent display in London. There were also sculptures, cuneiform tablets, jewelry and domestic items in the exhibition.

The exhibition was of some interest, but hardly of great importance. Over-promoted and over-produced, with all kinds of pseudo-scholarly claims on its behalf made by exhibition organizers and presenters, it was precisely the type of exhibition I find most annoying: a primarily commercial enterprise masquerading as a cultural presentation. We paid $25.00 per person (plus a $3.50 per ticket handling fee) for the privilege of participating in this mercantile transaction. At least Josh, as a student, was entitled to a slight discount: his ticket cost only $23.00. We haven’t decided yet what to do with the two dollars we saved on Josh’s ticket.

After the museum visit, we ate dinner at a seafood restaurant.

The Boston Ballet performance of “Cinderella” was highly enjoyable. The physical production was borrowed from The National Ballet Of Canada and was of very high quality. The production was set in the 1920’s, which made no sense, but it least it provided the designer with a few opportunities to emulate the work of Erte.

The choreographer was James Kudelka, former Artistic Director of The National Ballet Of Canada. Kudelka’s work was vastly inferior to Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella”, still the standard version after sixty years, and it did not have much dance interest. Nevertheless, Kudelka’s work was passable—and, more important, it was stage-worthy. The story was clearly told, the characters registered, and Kudelka had inserted a few strokes of individuality into his interpretation that actually added to the ballet without re-writing it. It was a fun evening.

Of course, “Cinderella” has a beautiful score, one of the most bewitching of all evening-length ballet scores. The orchestra of the Boston Ballet was not a great ensemble, but it was far preferable to have a real orchestra in the pit than to have a pre-recorded version of the score played.

The dancers were quite good, and very skilled in their mime, almost more important in this production than the dancing. Our interest did not flag at all.

Josh and I chose the Saturday night performance of this weekend’s run because it featured the two finest dancers in the company in the roles of Cinderella and the Prince (or so we were told). We wanted to see the production in a performance displaying the company’s best dancers, and we assumed that my parents would want to see the best dancers, too. The leads were OK.

The Boston Ballet is presently suffering financial problems. For economic reasons, the company had to reduce its number of dancers from 50 to 42 this season. I wonder whether the company will survive the current economic downturn—dance companies are always the first to go under in a prolonged period of economic contraction and, among major regional ballet companies, Boston Ballet is generally considered to be in the weakest financial condition. It is a company worth preserving.

On Sunday morning, we rose at 8:00 a.m. and had a breakfast of pancakes and sausages. We did not hang around the apartment too long on Sunday, because we wanted to return to The Museum Of Fine Arts for another couple of hours before attending a matinee performance of Carl Maria Von Weber’s opera, “Der Freischutz”.

We headed out at 11:00 a.m. We wanted to return to The Museum Of Fine Arts in order to view three additional temporary exhibitions, and we also wanted to make use of our tickets a second time (the MFA has an unusual policy: tickets are good for a second museum visit within ten days of the first visit).

We viewed all three temporary exhibitions we wished to see. The most interesting, for us, was a small Winslow Homer exhibition. It displayed oil paintings and watercolors from the museum’s own collection of Homer works (the MFA owns what may be the most important cache of Homer works anywhere).

The second small exhibition we visited was devoted to European portraits, an exhibition assembled from the museum’s own holdings. It was pretty unremarkable.

The third exhibition we viewed was devoted to portrait photography by Yousuf Karsh. We walked through this extensive exhibition pretty quickly, because none of us has a great appetite for portrait photography. Karsh was a significant practitioner in his field, and there were several famous images in the exhibition, but photography exhibitions are of limited interest to us.

We ate a light lunch at the museum cafĂ© before we departed for the “Freischutz” performance.

The “Freischutz” performance was more or less a disaster. The musical presentation was on a low level, and the stage presentation matched the musical presentation. For all practical purposes, this was an amateur performance and presentation of the great work.

Boston has two small opera companies, and “Der Freischutz” was a presentation of the smaller of those companies, Opera Boston. The whole affair was cheap and listless, and made me want never again to go anywhere near another one of the company’s offerings. Patrons who paid top price for “Freischutz” tickets ($129.00) must have been appalled by what they saw and heard. Happily, our tickets were only $34.00 each (with a $7.00 per ticket handling charge tacked on), so we did not feel too gypped. Nevertheless, the Opera Boston “Freischutz” was a gruesome experience. We left after the end of the second act and headed for the airport. Nothing in Act III could possibly have redeemed what we had seen and heard in the first two acts.

I think Josh and I gave my parents a decent weekend visit. They seemed to enjoy themselves. They seemed to be comfortable in our apartment. They picked a good weekend to visit Boston, a weekend in which there were a few things to do. They could have done worse.

For Josh and me, it is now back to the grind. The last two weekends have given us a break from drudgery, but weekend breaks for us are over for now, at least until Thanksgiving.

We’ll have to sustain ourselves with vivid memories of the microtones the Opera Boston chorus found in the rousing opening number of “Der Freischutz”. No doubt the chorus members were working from an unpublished Gyorgy Ligeti edition of the score.

I can’t wait to get my hands on it.


  1. The Ashton “Cinderella” is one of my favorite ballets. I must have seen it a dozen times. The first time I saw it, Merle Park was Cinderella. I fell in love with her all the way from the amphitheatre.

    Edythe and I go to the ROH for “Manon” Friday night. The Royal Ballet is giving it 11 or 12 times this season. The English National Ballet gives its own lengthy run of “Manon” performances in January at the Coliseum. I know you don’t like it, but it’s very popular here.

    “Der Freischutz” was done at the ROH several years ago under Colin Davis. I didn’t like it. It didn’t go over here. Audiences and critics disliked it. My memory tells me it was one of those peculiar Friedrich productions.

    Edythe sends regards.


  2. Calvin, I love the Ashton, too. I have seen three other versions of “Cinderella”—Anastos, Stevenson and now the Kudelka—and none of them has Ashton’s genius and freshness. Ashton’s “Cinderella” has those great set pieces, and those grand ensemble numbers, and it is odd that other versions of the ballet have not taken inspiration from the Ashton.

    There’s one thing I dislike about the Ashton: his treatment of the stepsisters, far too low comedy for such an elegant ballet. They are straight out of English Pantomime.

  3. Philadelphia is having money troubles, too. The endowment has gone down, and the orchestra cancelled its 2009 European tour. Undercoffer must smell trouble ahead. He chose not to renew his contract.

    What do you think of Eschenbach’s move to Washington? I kept expecting you to write about it.

    Andrew, earlier this month I saw an amazing “Fidelio” in Philadelphia. It was the best “Fidelio” I ever saw. I was shocked. I didn’t expect it to be so good. It was wonderful. It was stunning. I would have invited you guys down, but the weekend performances were on weekends you guys were already busy.

    The Pennsylvania Ballet will do “Cinderella” this season, too. I think it is the Anastos version, but don’t quote me on that.

    Andrew, you are wicked! I just read through Parterre for the week. I’m sitting here dying laughing. You are so wicked! You drove that English boob off the website. At least he claims he will not be back. I’m glad you did, by the way, because he basically had taken the forum over. He was posting forty times a day. He was ruining the website. He was turning it into his own personal website.

    Andrew, I accuse you of doing that on purpose. I accuse you of driving him away on purpose. I think what you did was intentional. I think you were sick of reading his forty posts a day and decided to do something about it.

    I can’t believe he kept begging JJ to redact your comments. He was a crying baby. If “provincial” is the worst thing people say about him, he’s lucky. Have you seen the pictures of himself on his website? If not, take a look. YOU MUST TAKE A LOOK!

  4. Dan, I worry very much about the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    James Undercoffer was supposed to be a savior for the orchestra, exactly the type of manager the orchestra needed. He understood the need for a giant permanent endowment, so he raised something like $125 million in endowment funds in less than three years. He understood that Eschenbach needed to go, so he engineered Eschenbach’s departure—and he did so with great skill and finesse. He understood that Philadelphia needed a temporary caretaker who loved and could preserve the Philadelphia sound, so he engaged Charles Dutoit, perfect for Philadelphia on a short-term basis, given the circumstances.

    Undercoffer’s departure is very, very bad news for the orchestra, in my estimation.

    My ultimate fear is that Philadelphia goes the way of Boston, and loses its greatness. The choice of conductor to follow Dutoit is critical. Philadelphia cannot afford a second consecutive bungled appointment.

    Regarding Philadelphia’s search, I have heard nothing new for months. As things stand, at least as I perceive the situation, the orchestra still wants Rattle and prays, each day, for a blowup in Berlin. The orchestra’s stopgap choice, Jurowski, is looking more unappealing by the day, and less and less ready for the big leagues. His stock is plummeting.

    Who is the orchestra looking at now? I have not a clue. I hope the orchestra takes a serious look at Ivan Fischer.

    Other than what I wrote in January, I do not have anything to say about Eschenbach and the National Symphony. Either Eschenbach will work out or he will not.

    I think I read something about that Philadelphia Opera “Fidelio”—something about the stage designs, which cost a mint, by a Japanese sculptor. I shall have to check out the reviews.

    I already looked at those David Nice photographs. He should post a warning notice on his blog, so as to alert aesthetes and the sensitive.

    Would not his blog be more aptly titled “Failures Of British Dentistry”?